The top two failed to grab the title initiative on Sunday. HJK were lucky to escape with a point from Turku after an unconvincing performance and TPS didn’t do themselves any favours in the draw at MyPa, being two goals down already after twelve minutes. Honka, however, certainly left their mark in Espoo against relegation bound RoPS. Everybody expected Honka to win with a clear margin but a 9-0 scoreline is a mockery of top flight football. The victory will be celebrated in the pages of Honka’s history books but will remain a smudge in the credibility of Veikkausliiga.
Going into the weekend, it was possible that HJK would clinch the title. This would have left a somewhat collective stale taste in the mouth though: HJK would have had to lift the trophy away from home (although, they would’ve got the satisfaction of doing it at the stadium of the reigning champions) and the so called ‘moral finale’ between TPS and Honka would be an even bigger anti-climax, as far as the title is concerned, than it will most likely be now. As it turned out, one goal would have been enough for HJK to spoil the party for everyone. But the good sports that HJK are and because they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, they were more than happy to accept that a point was as much as they were ever going to get from the Veritas Stadion. HJK can be criticised for their seeming negativity but their cautiousness will become their deliverance if they win the championship on the last day of the season; one cannot really expect them to shed their skin now when the title is at stake. It has been a long season and when one takes into consideration the quality of HJK’s football during it (they have been quite rubbish at most times), what they have achieved is as much as anyone can ask of them: with one game remaining the trophy remains in their hands to make or break.
A point from Inter was HJK’s minimum objective before the game. So when TPS scored the equalizer on the 53rd minute (it was one all in Turku), HJK had to make a decision: would they go for victory or safeguard what they had. Because there was still plenty of time for TPS to score a third, it would’ve been careless for HJK to go gung-ho for the winner. Had HJK done that, they would have risked exposing their defence to an excellent Inter who had already had them up against the ropes a few times. The nightmare scenario must have loomed in the back of Antti Muurinen’s mind: if HJK concede and TPS score, TPS (with a better goal difference) would go past them in the table. Muurinen, the latter-day pragmatist, decided to play it safe and secure the point that would be enough to give them the advantage in the last round.
Anxious calls were heard among the HJK fans as it became clear that their team would rather sit back than go all in. Nevertheless, the HJK coach was correct in settling for the minimum objective that had turned into a maximum prospect during the match. Inter dominated for long stretches, relishing the chance to play without pressure in front of their fans for the last time this season. The home side attacked with flowing moves as players were constantly moving, making themselves available and creating spaces for others. When Inter were in possession, HJK were left chasing shadows. Inter’s goal on the sixth minute was a perfect example of this. They attacked with a sweeping team move through midfield, moving the ball with one touch before exploiting Mikko Hauhia’s haphazard positioning as the HJK right back had left a fairway of space on his wing. The ball was played behind Hauhia to the path of Touko Tumanto who provided an inch-perfect cross for Joni Kauko to score. If Ville Wallen’s heroics are not taken into account, as he parried Kauko’s first effort, HJK didn’t even get a whiff off the ball during Inter’s perfectly executed attack.
The home team ran the visitors ragged on midfield. Aki Riihilahti and Medo were constantly a step behind the home side’s dynamic midfielders. HJK might have the muscle but they could not cope with the intelligent way Inter (especially the deep-lying Alberto Ramirez) distributed the ball, using the width of the pitch expertly. Unusually for Muurinen, who is known for his categoric refusal to react tactically (or to react at all, for that matter) to anything happening on the pitch, the HJK coach addressed the situation by replacing Akseli Pelvas with Cheyne Fowler on the 58th minute and shifted to a 4-5-1 formation, largely to the dismay of most visiting supporters. Despite the substitution’s negativity (a defensive midfielder for a striker), it had a positive effect on HJK’s playing. This unorthodox change of tactics by Muurinen was meant to counter Inter’s midfield domination and in this he succeeded, to a degree at least. Although, it wasn’t Fowler’s introduction that inspired the visitors.
Throughout the first half, HJK had struggled to keep possession on their attacking third. They were also unable to play balls to dangerous areas for the strikers (Juho Mäkelä and Pelvas) to run at. The excellent Joni Aho frustrated Dawda Bah, Ari Nyman bossed the centre and as Sebastian Sorsa also had a quiet game by his high standards, the visitors found it hard to pose any kind of an attacking threat for long periods. Ville Taulo’s introduction for the injured Riihilahti, however, livened up HJK’s game. Taulo was used in a forward position behind Mäkelä and was encouraged to move into space between Inter’s midfield and defence in order to build a platform for HJK’s attacks. It was largely through Taulo that HJK were able to create the few controlled attacking moves they had in the second half.
As the clock wore on and you began to think there would be no more goals, the match almost took a dramatic turn, twice. On the eighty-sixth minute, Fowler’s header struck the post after a HJK corner and then on extra-time Ats Purje hit the bar from about three meters, Tuomas Kansikas doing just enough to prevent the Estonian from getting a clear header on goal. Close but no cigar for HJK but in truth Inter were clearly the better side and gave a good reminder why they are still the holding champions.
While HJK and TPS had to grind away for all they are worth to achieve a point, Honka hardly even had to brake a sweat in the later kick-off. Of course, credit must go were credit is due and Honka’s 9-0 victory is an astonishing result (I don’t think any other team in Veikkausliiga could have pulled it off). But regardless of the praise going Honka’s way, it seems the scoreline was more the effect of RoPS’ spinelessness. To lose 9-0 is just absurd. It might happen in a match in an under 10-year-olds’ league where the kinds aren’t even expected to know how to kick a ball properly, much less play football. But to lose 9-0 in the Finnish top division is unbelievable and disgraceful (I could wager that this will be the ugliest defeat in any top league in Europe this season). It spells not only that RoPS are not good enough to play in Veikkausliiga (which comes as no surprise to anyone) but also that if they cannot even be bothered to put in an effort, they deserve to get relegated. Mind, it’s not as if RoPS have lost all hope of staying up as they are still only two points behind second last JJK. JJK might be rubbish but they have at least the decency to put up a fight. Hopefully KuPS will trash RoPS in the final round and send them back where they belong.
After the penultimate round, HJK still remain on the driver’s seat but Honka squeezed past TPS through better goal difference and are now three points behind the leaders. The final day of the 2009 Veikkausliiga season will be as intriguing as was hoped. In Turku, TPS host Honka in a match between two of the most entertaining sides in Finland. The script is simple, both teams must win. HJK, on the other hand, would make do with a point against FF Jaro in Helsinki. Against Inter, pragmatism was a virtue for HJK as they were able to hold on to a draw by the skin of their teeth. In the last match, however, HJK should only have one thing in mind: Kill the match off and do it quickly. They know from past experience that it’s bad luck to put the champagne on ice before kick-off but if they lead by two goals at half-time, there’s just enough time to get the bottles cooled before the final whistle.